Best Translated Book 2008 Longlist: Yalo by Elias Khoury
We’re into the home stretch now . . . Over the next five days we’ll be highlighting a book-a-day from the 25-title Best Translated Book of 2008 fiction longlist, leading up to the announcement of the 10 finalists. Click here for all previous write-ups.
Yalo by Elias Khoury, translated from the Arabic by Peter Theroux. (Lebanon, Archipelago)
In many ways, Yalo is the very definition of a “haunting novel.” For the images, the complex characters, the circular way the story is told, the reflections on torture and truth . . . It is a lasting book that will stay in reader’s minds long after they’ve finished it.
Although the novel is in no way “simple,” the plot itself is pretty straightforward. Yalo is on trial for rape. And is also suspected of being involved in a bombing plot. He’s a twenty-something-year-old veteran of the Lebanese civil war, who, following the war, absconded with some cash and a friend to Paris. His friend abandons him in France, leaving Yalo (who doesn’t speak a word of French) to wander the streets. Eventually he meets an arms dealer who proceeds to bring him back to Lebanon to serve as a guard for his house and family. And that’s where the trouble really begins.
Despite the sympathy the reader comes to feel for Yalo, he’s not necessarily a moral, upstanding person. After seeing people drive into the woods to have sex, he starts spying on them, occasionally robbing them, and once in a while raping the women. He gets involved with Shirin this way, a woman whom he claims to love, and who, depending on which version of the story you believe, has some interest in him as well.
Now on trial—thanks to the accusations of Shirin—he’s tortured in ways that are extremely disturbing, forced to write the entire story of his life, and broken, both mentally and physically.
Yalo’s story is interesting enough, but the way that it’s told in this novel is what really landed this book on the Best Translated Book of the Year fiction longlist.
Using some Faulknerian techniques, Khoury tells Yalo’s story in a looping and repetitive, subjective and uncertain, direct and poetic, fashion that is masterful and compelling. Siddhartha Deb has a nice overview of the book in his review for The Nation:
Yalo, the tenth novel by Lebanese writer Elias Khoury, is such a book. Published in Arabic in 2002 and now available in a translation by Peter Theroux, Yalo is set in 1993 and revolves around a single consciousness unable to make sense of itself or its surroundings. Its opening sentence is “Yalo did not understand what was happening,” and its closing line is “And if I don’t find the end of the story, how will I be able to write it?” In between lies a work that is both one story and several, perpetually revised under the torque of history, memory, desire, fear, understanding and loathing.
And Jeff Waxman’s review for Three Percent also points to some of the complexities of this novel:
Necessarily thicker than most of Khoury’s works, Yalo bears more scrutiny and re-readings than his other novels and in this literary masterpiece, translator Peter Theroux has achieved something exceptional. More than anything else, it is about the conflicts of identity and language in a region rife with upheaval and refugees. From his grandfather, Yalo inherited a complex culture, a legacy of statelessness found in the blending of Kurdish Islam and Lebanese Christianity. This blending of cultures includes an array of languages—Arabic, Syriac, Kurdish—all of which Theroux manages to convey without artifice and in impressive English. All of the alienation of tongues since the Tower of Babel is borne through startlingly clear prose. Yalo’s total estrangement may be the most successful of Khoury’s evocations and it is a constant theme in Yalo’s life. He is a haunted man and a man trapped in a crisis of intangible memory and identity. It’s more than the story of Yalo’s arrest, it’s more than the story of his imprisonment or his rapes and thefts. It’s the story of the entrapment of every character, from his lovesick mother to his grandfather the cohno, the priest. They are trapped as we are trapped—trapped in consciousness, trapped by mortality, trapped in a world that is not and cannot be objective.
Although a few of Khoury’s books had been translated into English at the time, it was Archipelago’s publication of Gate of the Sun that really launched him into the minds of American readers. Yalo is a different sort of book (and a bit shorter), and reinforces the opinion that Khoury is one of the great contemporary Arabic writers.
Khoury was able to tour in support of this book, and at least a couple of his performances were recorded and are available online. (C’mon publishers and booksellers, this seems like an obvious thing to do . . .) Specifically, his appearance at the Seattle Public Library is very interesting. And if you’re interested in learning more about Gate of the Sun, I’d highly recommend listening to his appearance on Bookworm. And the Washington City Paper has a really nice article about Peter Theroux, whose translation is impeccable.